President Macron finds it difficult to grasp why Algerians are still anti-French when France is yet to apologise to them for killing and abusing their forefathers during the French colonialism.
Tensions between Paris and Algiers became apparent when Algeria closed its airspace, barring French aircraft from entering the country on Saturday, and recalled its ambassador from Paris.
This came on the heels of President Emmanuel Macron’s criticism of the North African country’s school books shining a light on the harsh practices of French colonialism.
Like other European states, France colonised a number of African states including Algeria in the 19th century, exploiting both natural and human resources.
In his latest gaffe, Macron finds it astonishing that Algerians continue to detest France for occupying their country. While doing so, he turns a blind eye to the history of France’s bloody adventure across North Africa, which cost millions of lives in Algeria and other countries through decades.
Macron complained that “official history of Algeria has been rewritten, not based on truths, but based on hatred against France” without mentioning his country’s occupation and explaining why Algerians should like Paris’ colonialist presence.
Macron’s remarks triggered the immediate Algerian reaction.
“Macron’s remarks are an unacceptable insult to the memory of over 5.63 million martyrs who sacrificed themselves with a valiant resistance against French colonialism [between 1830-1962],” said a statement from the country’s presidency on Saturday.
“Macron provoked Algerians by digging into their unforgettable colonial atrocities caused by France and attacking their political system by saying that the post-1962 Algerian nation was built upon ‘a memorial rent’ maintained by ‘a politico-military system’,” says Imad Atoui, an Algerian political analyst.
Algeria’s shifting foreign policy
Not only colonialism as an old sin but also Algiers’ changing foreign policy has played a role in current escalating tensions, according to Atoui, the Algerian analyst.
“Macron’s fear is about the Algerian foreign policy shifts. He tellingly pointed a finger at the Ottomans, precursor of the Turks,” Atoui tells TRT World, referring to improving ties between Ankara and Algiers on different fronts from economics to cultural and strategic connections.
During his recent controversial remarks, Macron targeted the Ottomans, the old rulers of Algeria prior to French colonialism.
“There were previous colonisations. I am fascinated to see Turkey’s ability to make people totally forget the role it played in Algeria and the domination it has exercised, and to explain that we are the only colonisers. It’s great. Algerians believe it,” Macron said, appearing to despise Algerians’ capability of understanding of history and differentiating brutal occupiers from others.
While the Ottomans had ruled Algeria between the 16th and 19th centuries, there was no serious protracted war between Istanbul and Algiers in that period. Both Turks and Algerians have common national heroes like Hayreddin Barbarossa, the greatest admiral of the Ottomans.
“The French fear that Algeria has diversified its economic and strategic relations with different powers like China and Turkey,” Atoui says. Algeria has already had a strong military and strategic ties with Russia, buying and testing Moscow’s weapons.
“Algeria has a strategic agreement with Turkey: it could be activated whenever it is needed,” the analyst says. He also thinks that Turkey’s Africa opening concerns Macron’s France a lot, citing French media reports, which cover Ankara’s political steps across Africa in an alarming sense.
“As they [Turks] had been in North Africa for more than three centuries in the past, competing for the leadership in the Mediterranean basin, the Turks today could also build significant relationships with North African countries, competing with different powers, albeit economically, culturally (soft power) and strategically to some extent,” Atoui sees.
One of the main reasons for potential tensions between the two countries is also related to France’s incapability to reconcile the fact that the country had to withdraw from Algeria in the face of fierce resistance against the former colonial state, according to Atoui.
Interestingly, the recent Macron statement came during a private meeting with French-Algerians, who fought on the side of France against Algerian resistance, being accused as “collaborators” of colonialists. In the meeting, Macron apologised to those pro-French Algerians called Harkis, most of whom were left in the lurch by consecutive French governments.
But like his predecessors, Macron could not present any apology toward Algerians abused and massacred by invading French forces, showing that France can not reconcile its own past atrocities.
“The relations between France and Algeria are much more difficult than with any other ex part of the past French Empire. Nothing new,” says Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier, a French academic working both at the French Institute of Geopolitics and the Thomas More Institute.
“Algeria was considered as a part of France's territory and not a protectorate (as Morocco and Tunisia). It was governed through departments as the metropole. And more than one million of European colonists lived over there (1,2 million in 1962). Originally, they came from France but also from Spain and Malta,” Mongrenier tells TRT World, explaining why Macron and other French leaders can not disconnect themselves from the North African state.
France’s colonial presence in Algeria began in 1830 and until 1875, when much of Algeria’s occupation was complete, at least 825,000 indigenous Algerians were already killed by occupiers. But the worst was to come.
While Great Britain, which was the biggest colonial power, left most of its colonies by the 1950s. France was slow to recognise rising anti-colonialist sentiment across Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. As a result, dismissing any independence movement, France entered a bloody war with Algerians in 1954
“For all these reasons, it was more difficult [for the French], to leave [Algeria] and, as you know, a war happened (1954-1962). It is a big difference compared to both Morocco and Tunisia,” Mongrenier says.
Referring to Harkis, “this is a very sensitive issue”, says Mongrenier. “Some of them were abandoned in Algeria. For the others, it was difficult to be integrated in French society (for cultural factors more than other reasons).” Most pro-French Algerians were targeted by Algeria’s independence fighters.
“Briefly, our histories are both intertwined and painful,” the professor adds.
What to come?
In the face of Algeria’s shifting foreign policy and Turkey’s competition with France across north Africa in different conflicts from Libya to the East Mediterranean’s newly-discovered gas reserves, France cannot afford to escalate tensions with Algeria, according to the Algerian analyst. “Otherwise, it will open the space for different powers to approach Algeria.”
“It is very hard to foresee what is to come. However, from an analytical point of view, neither France nor Algeria can escalate the tensions, meaning there will be a way of reconciliation,” says Atoui.
“On the one hand, France cannot survive in the Sahel without Algeria as Algeria is a pivotal player in fighting terrorism there. Strategically speaking, the closing of the Algerian airspace means the French access to the Sahel would complicate French strategic operations there,” the analyst views. The Sahel is a wide region between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea in Africa.
“France may use the Moroccan airspace, but that would be hard for the French to access easily to Sahel. Algeria is stifling and playing a significant role in standing against different asymmetric threats from terrorism to illegal migration,” the analyst adds.
Atoui also thinks that the timing of Macron’s recent meeting with ‘Harkis’ families prior to the approaching presidential elections suggests that the French president wants to invest into the country’s large Algerian community’s votes, which are numbered nearly five million.
On the other hand, Algeria probably does not want to escalate the situation further, Atoui says. “Algerian foreign policy considers and appreciates friendship and it reacts when it comes to its sovereignty. But Algeria also considers that getting or making enemies is not the right thing at a time North Africa is witnessing chaos.”
“It might be some back and forth, depending on the French aggression. But, I do not think that the relations will get more intense, as long as enmity is not a good choice for both, like cutting diplomatic relations.”